Of el bandoneón

A few nights ago, to celebrate a friend’s birthday, I went to a milonga in barrio San Telmo. The dance-hall, Maldita Milonga, may be my favorite in town. It is fabulous in part because if it’s name (which means ‘damned milonga’) and in part because it works to live up to this title. It is very dark inside and the main room’s vaulted ceilings give it a cavernous feel. A few strands of Christmas lights hang above the bar in the back–their dim twinkle lures the thirsty. The air in Maldita Milonga is palpably heavy with weight of mischief and this is only as it should be for a damned dance-hall. The band and the crowd both, appropriately, seemed wayward, ne’er-do-well types, which is to say, just my types.

My companions and I were late arrivals but showed up just in time to see the orchesta típica close up the night with its final official number plus a few encore tangos. The group is something of a hipster version of your standard orchesta and in keeping with the spirit of Maldita Milonga, they’re known as El Afronte (in English, ‘the affront’). In this merry band there were, ladies and gentlemen, not one, not two, not three but four bandoneón players, young men all.

The musicians who play this region-specific instrument wield their charge over their knees, usually with some kind of cloth–a scarf, a t-shirt, a napkin–draped over the leg on which it rests. They use their knees to help spread the accordion-like apparatus apart with a kind of bounce that accompanies the striking punctuations of the tango.

To my ear, albeit untrained, the bandoneón makes the tango what it is: absolutely glorious. And on this lovely evening I must say my eyes were not on the whirling long legs of the dancers, but on the stage. Oh sweet, if damned, hipster musicians. I’d rather be doomed and in their company, I think, then full of grace and asleep at a reasonable hour.

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